Even the name is pretentious. And something of a misnomer, too. After all, a canapé comes from the French word for ‘couch’ — the idea presumably being that a garnish of some kind or other sits on top of tiny slices of bread or small crackers in the same way that tasty people plonk themselves down on a sofa.
Except that the whole business of dainty finger food — as liberated Victorians used to call it — has got so out of hand that wherever you fetch up, chefs are going to extremes to outdo each other.
During the preamble to new year, I attended one bash at a swish hotel in central London where the canapés kept coming (and heaven knows what they must have cost) but all they did was make everyone long for a proper dinner. One plate was offering teeny-weeny pieces of tuna wrapped around a sprig of out-of-season asparagus. They were smaller than an old-fashioned thimble and didn’t taste of much either. Another was posing as an early entrant to the Turner prize in the form of a minuscule slice of prawn bedecked by a squiggle of fluorescent mayonnaise and topped with three or four salmon-roe eggs.
‘And what do we have here?’ discerning guests asked politely, without waiting for the answer. ‘I won’t, thank you.’
I was famished and it would have been nice (but unacceptable, obviously) if I could have persuaded the waitresses to stand there for several minutes while I devoured seven or eight of all these little devils. As it was, I helped myself to just the one and off she went to torment other hungry imbibers. Foreplay is fine but there’s something to be said for penetration.
The canapé has become little more than a culinary affectation, an edible status symbol, and a good example of how those of us who normally subscribe to the less-is-more principle are sometimes wide of the mark.
Canapés serve a canny purpose, too, because the more savoury options on offer, the more people tend to drink, and at parties where the caterers or bar staff are counting the empty bottles with all the intensity of gold-diggers at the turn of the 19th century in Johannesburg, that’s important.
There’s an element of control in canapés. When the party is meant to be drawing to a close, out come the sweet options — usually a dollop of sugary custard on a tiny biscuit or a whole strawberry with chocolate smeared over the top.
The other day I was invited to Australia House for the premiere of Sir David Attenborough’s new series on the Great Barrier Reef. It was an inspiring occasion. Afterwards, there were drinks and meaningful conversations about ‘saving the planet’ — and then the canapés turned up to remind us of the unnatural world.
Some of them were in small bowls and came with their own forks, meaning that you either had to find a table on which to put down your champagne flute in order to eat what the chef had produced, or do without. One woman tried holding her glass in the nook of her arm while desperately trying to tuck into the mini risotto but it didn’t look comfortable.
My wife has an even stronger aversion to canapés than me. She can’t do with people talking with their mouths full or spluttering crumbs of food. And trying to master dipping sauces when wearing a pretty silk frock is a thankless task.
But there’s hope. My friend Shona, who cooks at numerous country weddings, says more and more couples are returning to trusty old staples such as salmon on brown bread (the quality of the salmon is crucial, apparently), sausages cooked in honey and sesame seeds and, hallelujah! vol au vents overflowing with chicken and ham.
Those cocktail sausages never fail and, somehow, I enjoy fishing out the sticks from my jacket pocket when I get home. The more sticks, the better the party.